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If you’ve ever imagined the perfect retirement home for spawned out flyfishers, it would probably be like Missoula, Montana: A small, friendly college town big enough for all basic urban amenities, situated in a lush valley surrounded by mountains, with real saloons (liquor in the front, poker in the back), and most important, a quality trout stream or two just outside the door. Trouble is, Missoula offers so many good streams only minutes away that you could get brainlock making up your mind.
On a writer’s tour of Western Montana in late May, six of us outdoor reporter types were hosted to five days of fishing in the region. Unfortunately, our week coincided with runoff peaks, and consequently poor fishing was the rule. The moral of the story, superficially, is avoid the area from about May 15 to June 15. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that fishing opportunities in other seasons here are little short of spectacular. Where else could you catch a big bull trout right outside your hotel window (it’s been done at the local Red Lion), or walk from downtown to a designated wilderness area in 30 minutes (Rattlesnake) and catch wild cutthroats? Only in Missoula.
The Missoula area lies at the intersection of five valleys which join major branches of the Clark Fork of the Columbia River. Primary rivers include the Bitterroot, draining the rugged crags to the west; the Blackfoot (setting for the fly fishing classic, A River Runs Through It), draining the eastern mountains; and the Clark Fork itself, a huge river comparable to the Lower Colorado or the Upper Missouri. Major local feeder streams include the famous Rock and Lolo Creeks, within 30 minutes. All are fine fisheries, and seldom ever crowded. A local sleeper is the little known (previously private) Rattlesnake Creek. Upstream of its confluence with the Clark Fork in downtown Missoula, Rattlesnake offers totally wild, 15 to 17 inch cutts and larger bulls.
Missoula is unusual for a small town in supporting three good fly shops: Streamside Anglers (*), Missoulian Anglers (*) and Grizzly Hackle (*). Grizzly Hackle handled all the arrangements for our group of writers and did a fine job under difficult circumstances. Owner Jim Toth obviously understands traveling anglers and is a key person to contact if you plan to visit the area. Doug Bender, at the same phone number, struck me as one of the most knowledgeable local fishing experts.
Of the several good guides I met, all of whom worked through Grizzly Hackle with Orvis endorsed Paul Roos Outfitters, I strongly recommend Rick Hennequin. My float with Rick on Rock Creek was the fishing highlight of the trip. We caught good rainbows and browns in the 16 inch class even though the river wasn’t clear and the famous salmon fly hatch hadn’t started. You can wadefish Rock Creek a half hour out of Missoula. There are some pure cutthroats in the upper reaches of Rock Creek, but as this is written they are threatened by some proposed timber cuts.
If you want to fish closer to town, the underfished Bitterroot, which enters the Clark Fork above Missoula through an unusually beautiful valley, is a good bet. Then there is the Blackfoot River, setting for the new Robert Redford produced film based on MacClain’s book, A River Runs Through It. Heavily disturbed by mining and logging interests for many years, the Blackfoot is on the mend now, thanks at least in part to new catch and release regulations. Some much bigger fish are now being taken again in the lower stretches near Missoula.
Another good stream, ten minutes out of town back on the Bitterroot, is Lolo Creek. I’m told you can catch every species of trout in Montana except lakers in a single day on this stream. For the largest fish, of course, the place to fish is the Clark Fork itself, which I consider an underrated, world class trophy trout river. It flows right through downtown Missoula.
The top guide on the Lower Clark Fork, and the area generally, is John Perry, who operates West Slope Outfitters (*) out of Missoula and the cozy Clark Fork River Lodge (*) near Superior (an ideal place to end up a float). His wit and humor under impossible high water conditions more than made up for slow fishing on our day together. Perry also guides the Upper Missouri and the awesome Smith River eastward over the Divide.
If you come to Missoula and want to branch out beyond the immediate area, you may want to venture out, as we did, to the Bull River in extreme Western Montana or to the Kootenai further north, each about three hours from Missoula. To sample the latter, noted for its outsized tailwater rainbows, I recommend Kootenai Angler in Libby (*) or Kootenai River Outfitters in Troy (*). Prime time on the Bull, a much smaller river, is in the fall when massive spawning browns move up from the lake below. With even larger bull trout in the river, this is big game hunting with heavy equipment. The best place to stay in this area is the luxurious but modestly priced bighorn Lodge (*). It has some of the best food I’ve encountered anywhere in Western Montana.
One bonus of visiting this entire area is the attitude of the local people. Largely uninfected by urban cynicism, they will knock themselves out to welcome you. It sounds corny but "Big Sky Country" has "Big Heart" people in it. I just hope they stay that way when their newly developed tourist promotion plans begin to pay off. The West doesn’t need another fishing "zoo" of the sort we described last month.
I’ll leave you with some general contact numbers. First is Bob Tutski of Spiker Communications (*). He can provide you with information on the eight county western Montana region. For more local help in Missoula, you might want to try Pam Hoedel at the Missoula Conventions and Visitors Bureau (*). Enjoy! Hugh Gardner.